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Realtime >> Friday November 28, 2008

With his long-awaited 'Ong-Bak 2' set for release next week, a philosophical Tony Jaa talks about finding peace through martial arts and paying homage to the fight masters


He has on a hip new hat, more fitting for a Korean popster than a bone-breaking warrior from Surin. His degree of superstardom is manifest by the lengthier, more ceremonial protocol before studio publicists allow him to appear before the waiting press. In five hot years Panom "Tony Jaa" Yeerum, 32, has traversed a stirring trajectory with his fists, feet and feline grace from a rugged stuntman into one of Asia's - possibly one of the world's - most thrilling martial arts wunderkinds.

When he speaks, Jaa's voice is composed, almost soporific. And by means of his speech, he assures us that despite the fame, despite the deification by global fans and Jackie Chan himself, and despite the unsavoury scuttle during the shoot of his grossly overbudgeted Ong-Bak 2, Jaa still remembers his place in the world.

"I'm still not good enough," he says calmly, almost like a monk. "That's why I have to keep working hard, to keep coming up with new styles of fighting. The more I study martial arts, the more I learn about concentration and peace. To me it's a form of meditation, a form of letting go."

His eyes are strangely puffy, perhaps from working round-the-clock to finish the editing of Ong-Bak 2 for its Dec 5 release. That gives a surreal effect to Jaa's sermon-like speech. Always a humble personality, the son of a Northeastern mahout was however more ebullient, more enthusiastic two years back, when he'd happily talk about his world travels, his shoulder-rubbing with Hollywood stars, or his red-carpet somersaults at various premiers of Ong-Bak, the whopping hit of 2003 that launched his career as a broad-faced, white-fanged, ass-kicking exotic hero from the land of a thousand elephants.

The original Ong-Bak made 110 million baht at home, and scored $1.5 million during the first week in the US. Playing a country bumpkin who arrives in Bangkok to retrieve a scar-faced Buddha bust stolen from his village, Jaa soon became this country's first real international star. France, for example, went wild over his potent mix of realistic violence and balletic muay-thai fluency. Korean and Japanese producers wanted him for their projects, and Jackie Chan was after him for Rush Hour 3. Then came Tom-Yum-Goong in 2005, Jaa's second collaboration with director Prachya Pinkaew; the film was trashed by critics (and mocked by many viewers), but still made 200 million baht here and nearly $25 million in worldwide receipts.

Sombre Tony Jaa is unruffled. In Ong-Bak 2, he's stepped up to take the director's chair (he will share the credit with his mentor and choreographer Panna Rittikrai) and proceeded to devise a story that allows him to try something rather crazy and possibly spectacular: in the new film, Jaa plays an orphaned slave in ancient Cambodia who's adept at every martial arts discipline, from muay thai and kung fu to kenjutsu and karate, which he alternatively administers on his opponents.

Most interestingly, last year Jaa took a crash course with Pichet Klunchuen, the formidable khon artist. The workshop and discussion between the two men led Jaa to a new term of combat - natayuth, a combination of natasilpa, or performing art, and yuth, or battle, which augments Jaa's geometric formation of his limbs before he launches a fight.

In Ong-Bak 2 Jaa plays an orphaned slave in ancient Cambodia whos adept at every martial art.

"I believe khon and muay thai share the same roots, we can see that clearly in their postures," he says. "I think I can integrate the essence of khon into the practice of hand-combat. I think every punch I make should mean something, every punch should have a history in it.

"Likewise with other schools of martial arts, I think they all share the same basic elements. In the film I want to pay homage to the masters of kung fu and karate and the samurai style of fighting. I didn't borrow them merely to make the film - I studied all of them with experts because I want to understand them deeply. And I respect them like I respect muay thai. Like I said, I'm still not very good, and the only way to be is to study more and to work harder."

Ong-Bak 2 has whetted the public appetite with its jaw-dropping teasers; one of them showing Jaa racing on the backs of a stampeding herd of elephants, the other featuring his brutal flip-kicks and cartwheeling punches. Even to those who found Tom-Yum-Goong rather mediocre, the new film's tag line, "real fight is back" - confirming Jaa's no-stunt, no-wires modus operandi - still carries a genuine authority, even a certain sense of pride. At a time when bare-chested, bare-knuckled heroes seem obsolete in the cinema, Thailand, through Jaa, manages to carve out a small slice of global fame.

But all hasn't been so smooth. The perplexing, bizarre and sometimes unpleasant scandals during the filming of Ong-Bak 2 have dulled some of Jaa's lustre, and perhaps explain the actor's pensive, monk-like mode. In late July, reports spread that Jaa had gone missing from the set of the movie. Assistants said the actor/director had gone to meditate in the jungle, leaving everyone in great panic since the film's budget had already ballooned. Then he reappeared. And there followed his meetings with the studio, Sahamongkol Film Intl, accompanied by both sides' lawyers, over his fees and his request for even more money in order to complete the film.

Last action hero: Jaa says that every punch should have a history behind it.

At that time, sources close to Jaa suspected the actor's increasing penchant for black magic to be part of the problem. "I was stressed out and I went to a forest monastery to pray and to seek artistic visions," the actor said at that time. "I'm making this film not for money, but for its artistic value." The dust was cleared, however, after two frenzied weeks, and Jaa returned to the set to finish what he'd left off. Sahamongkol Film says that the picture cost nearly 300 million baht, a shocking inflation from the original 150 million baht budget.

Neither Jaa nor his team wishes to talk about the conflict. Everyone is only happy now that the film will go on release. Jaa repeatedly thanked the studio for letting a first-timer like him enjoy the rare chance of helming such a major project.

Yet it seems that Jaa's sabbatical sojourn in the forest still left an imprint. The actor, in his serene tone, talks raptly about "stillness", and about how he strives to delve into the spiritual core of martial arts in order to find ultimate peace. "Martial arts are meditation in action," he says. "It helps you concentrate, it's about reviewing your experiences and about your thoughts. It's Brahmin and Buddhism combined, and it helps you get in touch with the four elements of the Earth.

"And I don't mean just muay thai. A samurai, for example, represents a stillness that's wrought with meaning. I spent a long time learning simply how to clasp my hand around the handle of a samurai sword, because there's a way to do it correctly, and it's important. I may design the fighting moves according to my imagination, but the basics must be right."

It may not be easy for observers, however, to reconcile Jaa's devotion to stillness and serenity with the flurry of violence that, to be frank, helped make him famous. It's all just acting, but is the visceral brutalisation of Ong-Bak, Tom-Yum-Goong, and now Ong-Bak 2 really a Buddhist way of expressing oneself? In the first Ong-Bak, it's almost ironic that in order to recover a stolen Buddha bust, a symbol of peace in his village, Jaa's character had to brawl his way through a mob of thugs, beating them to pulp. In Ong-Bak 2, the motive is pure revenge.

Again Jaa replies calmly. "It's a black-and-white thing, but what I want to find is what's in the middle," he says. "I believe we practice martial arts not to use it to overpower others. It's a means to find the emptiness inside us, and if we can do that we won't be the aggressor but the recipient of violence. We'll take things as they come."

Like a priest's homily, Jaa's sermonised answer is either mystical, intriguing, or off-the point. He seems to believe what he says, though. Only that for Tony Jaa, a man whose marvellous moves could well be soon recognised as a national treasure, actions speaks louder than words. And with the full catalogue of ferocious fists, feet, swords and whatnot Jaa has prepared for his opponents in his new film, it will certainly continue to be that way.

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